Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Seventeen"

“That’s more than I usually get.”

This, as I recall, was my response, when my wonderful agent and his dark partner, Bob, informed me of the terms of a deal Universal had offered me to develop new comedies series for their studio.

During the almost fifteen years I had been writing for television, I had felt little enthusiasm for such a deal. I was a freelancer, offering my services to series that interested me, from Mary Tyler Moore to The Cosby Show. My resume was unusual. I had held only two positions on the programs I had worked on. I was either the show’s Executive Producer – Best of the West and The Cosby Show – or I took no title at all and just wrote scripts.

I liked the feeling of not having a boss. (That feeling bore no connection to any actual reality. I always had a boss. Whoever pays you, is your boss. I liked to imagine myself as a hired gun who did the job, and quietly rode out of town. I never worked for someone, I always worked with them. Of course, that’s all nonsense. Something your mind manufactures to puff you up. When it’s not going the other way.)

My (imagined) independent streak reminded me of my brother’s joke:

A Jew gets off a stagecoach in the Old West and heads down the street. The first cowboy he passes says, “Howdy, Partner.” To which the Jew immediately shoots back, “I don’t need no partners.”

Aside from the loss of imagined independence, working under an “overall” deal meant – unless it was stipulated otherwise in your contract – that if you weren’t developing or producing a show of your own, the studio could assign you to another of their shows, currently on the air. You could always say you didn’t want to do it, but here’s what that meant.

One, you were essentially telling people who were paying you very well on a weekly basis: “I’d rather not work on the show you’re assigning me to. I’d prefer, instead, to take extended naps in my office.”

Two, as a result of your behavior in One, these people are, understandably, not eager to bring you back when your current contract runs out.

The short version? They don’t pay big money for naps. (More than once.) (Usually.)

However (as the anarchic comedian Professor Irwin Corey used to say at the beginning of his act)…

By the time this offer came around, I was a married guy with a house, two children and lots of bills. A regular paycheck started sounding pretty good. Much better than, say, living in the street.

Plus, See: above. It was more than I usually got.

I’d also probably had it with freelancing. There wasn’t always enough work to keep me busy, though I had participated in some wonderful projects along the way, from Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories to an assignment starring Steven Wright for a (very rare) original comedy series on PBS.

I had also written some (unsold) pilots during that period, a memorable one for a production company bankrolled by Mormons, who had paid me double my usual salary and who, for a number of Christmases, continued to send me – I believe as a gift – a five-pound sack of walnuts.

When they start paying you in things that chipmunks eat, it’s time to take a deal.

So I did.

The Universal Studios president was a smart and decent man named Kerry. (Unlike more formal businesses, show business – from the highest level to the bottom – likes to promote the illusion of friendliness, by having people call each other by their first names, making it even more shocking when the Big Guys suddenly pull rank.)

Kerry had an original way of shaking hands. You’d stick out your hand, and Kerry’d respond by sweeping his arm way out to the right. His elbow was bent, but the arm was really out there. Then, after a momentary pause, he’d swoop his arm back in, his hand finding its target perfectly. Everyone needs a trademark. Kerry’s was the “Flying Handshake.”

I accepted the deal when Kerry agreed to two conditions. One: The studio could not assign to another of its comedies. (I may be wrong, but I don’t believe that, at that time, Universal Studios produced any comedies.) The second condition was that, when my deal was announced in the “trade” papers – Variety and The Hollywood Reporter – it would not be accompanied by a photograph of me holding up a Universal team jersey with “POMERANTZ” sewn on the back.

I was taking the money, but I still had my pride.

Besides a personal driver – Craig, who was a godsend – to shuttle me around, my deal also included a gigantic office. You know – or maybe you don’t – how when a studio president loses their job, but they still have some time on their contract, so they’re given a luxurious temporary office and nothing to do? When the guy’s deal ran out, that’s where they put me.

The office was enormous. Did I mention that already? Forgive me, but it was very impressive. Even Dr. M was, like, “Wow.” And she’s not easily “Wowed.” I could see it in her eyes. They said, “My husband must be somebody. Look where they put him.”

Aside from the adjoining flagstone patio, where we set up a small barbecue and incurred the immediate attention of the studio’s on-site Fire Department – the highlight of my office was that, right next door, were the offices of Peter (Columbo) Falk and Patrick (The Prisoner) McGoohan. You know who was next door to them?


I recently asked my agent how he was able to get me such a tremendous deal? His one-word answer:


It was as simple as that. My association, brief as it was, had sprinkled me with the pixie dust of Cosby Show mystique. The Cosby Show was a phenomenal hit and I had been its first Executive Producer (and the Emmy-nominated writer of the “Goldfish” episode). Universal wanted a piece of that. And the biggest piece available was me.

I had helped put together one of the most popular half-hour comedies in television history. My assignment at Universal? It was very simple.

Do it again.


Anonymous said...

Mormons = walnuts. who da thunk!

My husband once was given a HUGE sack of onions from a happy customer who was in the fresh produce biz. We made onion soup forever!

Anonymous said...

It's pretty standard for a minister's family to receive all kinds of produce from the congregation, but we didn't know that when my father changed professions. My mother's favorite was the farmer who brought a chicken he had killed and plucked and when she was fairly enthusiastic in her thanks, he brusquely said that it was going to die anyway. It would have been our family's response to walnuts - Oh, were they going to die anyway?